A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Murder hornets increased the urgency of this week’s blog.
1. When our pal Chris Johnston sorted through every NHL trade involving 2020 conditional draft picks, he rated the James Neal and Milan Lucic deal as potentially one of the most contentious should the regular season not be completed before the draft — a likely scenario.
Edmonton is to surrender its third-round pick to Calgary if Neal scores a minimum of 21 goals and finishes with 10 more goals than Lucic.
Neal is stuck at 19 but his prorated total would project 22.8 goals if he could remain healthy for the Oilers’ final 11 games. Lucic sits at eight and projects to 9.4. Theoretically, Calgary would’ve met the conditions. In reality, they have not been met.
Another wrinkle: The ailing Neal had fallen ice cold, failing to score once in 2020, while Lucic had found the net twice in his past four games.
“I think it’s hilarious that’s what it’s come down to right now,” Lucic told Spittin’ Chiclets, during a must-listen interview for Flames fans.
“If you ask me, I think the condition should stand. I’m not the rule-maker. I just think it’s funny that here we are with what should’ve been 10 games left and we’re 11 goals apart.
“The [crappy] thing too is, I had one and one in my last game and I was starting to feel it again, and Nealer came off a pretty big [foot] injury. I think I probably would’ve closed that gap from 11 goals. That’s why I think it’s funny that that’s where that’s sitting at right now.”
On the topic of spoiled trade conditions, Lucic empathizes with contending teams that pushed in at the deadline and gave up picks for rental players, like his hometown Canucks.
“They gave up a lot for [Tyler] Toffoli,” Lucic said. “They got him for a playoff push… and now we don’t know if he’s ever gonna play for the Vancouver Canucks again.”
2. When speaking to Dougie Gilmour for his interview reflecting on Toronto’s 1993 run, I also asked him about the current Maple Leafs group.
He figures Morgan Rielly’s full health will be the greatest benefit of this prolonged pause and has no doubt the Leafs were going to outduel the Panthers for the Atlantic’s final postseason spot.
Seeding doesn’t mean as much health, Gilmour figures, now that the NHL’s parity has hit an all-time high.
“In my eyes, they were making the playoffs. And it doesn’t matter if you’re eighth,” Gilmour says.
“I know they’re gonna face tough teams, but one of these days, things change. Look at last year — Columbus beat Tampa. Things change, and things can happen. My biggest thing is: Just let these guys get there, and there’ll be some change real quick.”
3. Some fun questions highlighted Monday’s NHL-hosted roundtable with the past four Stanley Cup–winning netminders.
Asked which teammate tends to break code and shoot high during practice, Braden Holtby mentioned former Capital Andre Burakovsky as a guy willing to buzz a few ears. Jordan Binnington was hesitant to throw any fellow Blues under the bus.
“[Jacob] De La Rose has got me once or twice this year,” Binnington snitched. “I’ll leave it at that.”
Holtby confessed that he and Alex Ovechkin had some run-ins early in his career because Ovi wouldn’t take it easy on his own goalies.
“If you shoot that hard, you don’t really understand it. And I think he figured it out after a while, once our coaches made us change the goalies on the power-play unit so he didn’t hit us anymore,” Holtby said. “Especially the last few years, he really respects us now. You can tell when he’s gone a couple games without scoring a goal, you know you’re not stopping much that practice on him. He’s trying to feel it again.”
Holtby says the reason Ovechkin scores so easily has less to do with pure power than it does with an impossible-to-read release off his blade.
“It doesn’t go where it’s supposed to. It’s like a pitcher in baseball who throws a 95-mph knuckleball. It moves likes crazy,” Holtby explained. “It’s like he’s a golfer with a draw.”
Matt Murray agrees, Ovechkin’s blast is the NHL’s most difficult to read.
“Like Braden said, it’s kind of like a knuckleball, honestly. Probably because of that huge toe curve he uses,” Murray said. “Sometimes it drops a foot or foot and a half. Sometimes it wobbles midair. Sometimes it starts going high glove side and dips and curves low blocker. It’s crazy, the movement he has on his shot. And the speed behind it, too.”
4. As the NHL and the Players’ Association plot a course to bring hockey back, one question that has arisen is if and how to stage exhibition games. No player wants his first game in four or five months to count.
While the American Hockey League has not officially cancelled its campaign, no one imagines a viable scenario for the feeder league to return without fans, and the TV revenues aren’t high enough to justify the expense.
So, AHL players might be wise to stay in shape for the sole purpose of serving as black aces to scrimmage with the main NHL roster and get some in-house tune-up games going.
You’d have to imagine playoff teams wanting to carry expanded practice rosters for this reason, and also to mitigate against the number of injuries that could occur from jumping off the couch and into playoff-level intensity.
5. In Mikko Lehtonen, the Maple Leafs landed another prized potential NHLer this week, and GM Kyle Dubas gave full credit to super-recruiter Jim Paliafito. Rightly so.
But the Leafs have also used their state-of-the-art training facilitates and spare-no-expense staff of trainers, development coaches and sports doctors to help sell the organization to players who want personal attention.
“I’ve only been in Toronto, but I’d put my money on us having the best development in the league,” Leafs defenceman Travis Dermott told me earlier this year.
“Our organization does such a great job of giving every player the opportunity to excel. All the best coaches. All the best trainers. All the best nutritionists. Everything is top-to-bottom elite. So, if someone’s dedicated to getting better, you get every tool in the world that you want.”
How much do those things matter — versus straight dollars and term — when it comes to signing a contract?
“It’s gotta matter at least a bit,” Dermott replied.
“It’s where you’re going to be for a long time. It’s where you’re gonna call home. It’s not like you’re just playing in Toronto; you’re living here. How well we get treated is always something that gets talked about within the room, and how we don’t want to take it [for granted]. We want to make sure we’re doing everything [we can] for ourselves, for the city. Everyone in our organization has logged in so many hours and worked so hard for us to get treated like do we here.”
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 9, 2020
While some have wondered if the Lehtonen signing could signal Demott’s trade availability — so many left shots! — we’d counter that this is Dubas finally addressing a defensive depth issue that he did not fulfill at his past two trade deadlines.
I bet this season’s significant injuries to Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin underscored the need for more capable pro bodies, regardless which way the blade curves.
6. Let’s see how the Minnesota Wild are keeping sane these days…
7. While I’m not convinced NHL owners will go for player agent Kurt Overhardt’s proposal of an Exception Player Rule — which would allow each franchise to pay one superstar a salary above the club’s salary cap for a luxury tax — I love the critical thinking at a time when the CBA could be tweaked.
Obviously, as an agent, Overhardt’s idea would help him personally but could also boost the league. But with small-market teams trying to keep up with the rich ones, such a provision could undo some of the great parity Gary Bettman has orchestrated.
Overhardt argues that the system needs to evolve, especially since an outright cancellation of the season could cost the league upwards of $1 billion dollars in hockey-related revenue, per his estimation.
“Remember, before the salary cap, there were teams that spent over $80 million, and this was 16, 17, 18 years ago,” Overhardt said on Sportsnet 590 The Fan (listen below), “because their owners wanted to win a Stanley Cup and put all their chips on the table.”
8. While a slow trickle of impending free agents — Joonas Korpisalo, Elvis Merzlikins, Jaroslav Halak, Christian Djoos — have managed to sign extensions during the NHL’s pause, all is quiet between Mikhail Sergachev and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Despite an absence of talks between Sergachev’s agent, Mark Gandler, and GM Julien BriseBois, the player is optimistic a deal will get done.
“It’s a little different obviously right now, but I’m trying to leave it to my agent,” Sergachev said on a Zoom call Thursday. “He’s going to deal with it, I guess. But for me, I just want to continue the season, play and get better and see what happens. I feel like they’re going to work out something. I have a good agent.”
With the salary cap expected to stay flat, BriseBois will face the type of roster crunch that almost certainly necessitates a trade or two off the roster.
The steadily improving Sergachev is but one of five Lightning RFAs in need of a pay bump. Anthony Cirelli, Erik Cernak, Mitchell Stephens and Carter Verhaeghe are the others.
The uncertainly surrounding the cap and the fate of the 2019-20 campaign have halted negotiations, Sergachev said.
“We’ll just wait and see what the salary cap is going to be like, if we’re going to resume to play or not,” Sergachev said. “It’s still up in the air. We’re kind of in limbo right now. I wish I knew, and I wish I could tell you something.”
Sergachev, 21, chipped in with 10 goals and 34 points this season, but it’s his defensive play that took a giant step forward, prompting coach Jon Cooper to use him on the penalty kill and increase his ice time to 20:22.
“Last year was a learning curve for me,” Sergachev said. “This year I felt like I learned the ropes and saw what I had to do. I just knew what I had to do, and I guess I did it. Coaches started trusting me more with PK, more ice time. It all started to come together. I was having fun playing like that.”
9. During quarantine, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy has made a point to read Frances E. Jensen and Amy Ellis Nutt’s bestseller, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults.
“A little more scientific,” he says. “The title speaks for itself.”
Cassidy’s children, Shannon and Cole, will be teenagers soon enough, but he’s also reading the text to better understand and communicate with the young players he deals with daily.
Topics that get touched on include self-absorption, anxiety, risk-taking, gaming, parental influence, social media, disorganization and the tendency for emotion to trump reason.
“The brain is the last organ to mature,” Dr. Jensen explains.
Fascinating stuff for coaches trying to better comprehend the actions of young athletes.
10. Justin Holl says American players who work for Canadian teams are taking the wait-and-see approach before trekking across the border.
“The general consensus among American players is that we’ll wait until we have a concrete plan before we go back,” the Leafs defenceman explained. “You never know if you go back and you’ll be sitting around for another month or two. Once we have a plan, being in Minnesota, I’ll just hop in the car that day, basically, and drive back.”
Monday, the Raptors are opening up their practice facility for limited workouts, with the Toronto government’s blessing.
Could the Maple Leafs be far behind?
11. Brian Dumoulin has been loving the nostalgia of playing hockey in his driveway again, something that whisks him back to boyhood games in Maine.
He’ll be perfectly fine playing the grandest games in the quietest buildings if the Penguins can save their season sans fans in the stands.
“They can’t take it away from you. Winning the Stanley Cup, no matter where. If we were playing in my driveway, that would be fine with me — if we were playing for the Stanley Cup,” Dumoulin said. “You don’t need much other motivation other than that.
“It takes you back to my childhood when we were just playing out there for fun. We were mites and squirts playing in NHL arenas. No one was in the crowd. We still wanted to win the game as much as possible. The ultimate goal is the Stanley Cup, still.”
No asterisks allowed.
12. Memories like this remind us what we’re missing…
Throwback to possibly the greatest example of karma ever. pic.twitter.com/T8OheH6XX9
— Hockey Central (@HockeyCentraI) May 1, 2020